Creating mental flowcharts and colorful maps for disclosing disability

by Kat

I remember making a color-coded map of whom I could trust in my department and sharing it with my advisor. It was scrawled in pen, categorized into red (unsafe or ineffective), orange (unhelpful or neutral), and green (safe to disclose) areas. She responded positively, saying that my map was accurately drawn and surprisingly descriptive. We talked about how I’d managed to identify safe people — those with whom I felt comfortable sharing my backstory.

I don’t like passing. It requires energy that already feels depleted. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to ableist attitudes, the implicit assumptions that people like me don’t exist in PhD programs or conduct developmental disability research. Nevertheless, passing feels like safety; I avoid the gaze of people who refuse to acknowledge both my strengths and impairments, those who still believe in the high functioning vs. low functioning dichotomy.

I’ve grown familiar with creating another kind of narrative: A vaguely described chronic health condition that distracts from my graduate studies (read as: The overlap between generalized anxiety and autism, when my social filter collapses and my executive dysfunction is apparent).

My earliest forms of disclosure were elaborate metaphors describing enough anxiety to power a small city. I waited for the visible discomfort or displays of acceptance that followed these conversations. Later I learned to listen for personal narratives of disability — those who alluded to lived experiences with mental health conditions or those whose stories contained gaps, maybe paragraphs they assumed others would find overwhelming.

I suppose I’ve created mental flowcharts for disclosure as a kind of sensemaking process. A way to manage the fear of coming out to others about being Autistic, when I sometimes doubt myself. I’m reminded of Nattily’s post about wanting to be autistic — how that response would be odd for individuals without spectrum traits.

Finding patterns and labeling things are inherently comforting acts for me. To say, this is who I am, who I’ve always been, why I struggle to do seemingly easy tasks and excel at seemingly difficult ones. This is my narrative.

This Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, I meet with the autism specialist in town, the lady who did my screening a few months ago during our consultation. I need her to see the Autistic traits that will impair my performance duing Oral Exams, but also brought me to academia. I need her to recognize my gifts and struggles, to document the extent of my need for accommodations. I need the autism specialist to see me.

A friend of mine invited me to submit an article about Autism Acceptance Month for her community newsletter. I tried writing from an academic perspective, to maintain a sense of professional distance, but couldn’t seem to find the words. Then I shifted into my own account of being Autistic in academia and found my narrative — in preface written and poetry shared.